James has brought NBA to a standstill again

LAS VEGAS — He is the most powerful force in the NBA, his imprint extending beyond the four Most Valuable Player awards and the two championships, the endorsement deals and the merchandise sales. In recent days, LeBron James even proved capable of...

NBA Finals Bakstball_Piet.jpg
Miami Heat forward LeBron James reacts between plays against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half in Game 2 of the NBA basketball finals on Sunday, June 8, 2014, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

LAS VEGAS — He is the most powerful force in the NBA, his imprint extending beyond the four Most Valuable Player awards and the two championships, the endorsement deals and the merchandise sales. In recent days, LeBron James even proved capable of slowing the frenzy of NBA free agency to little more than a crawl, his options spread before him like an all-you-can-eat buffet at the Bellagio. Owners want to pay him. Executives want to woo him. Rivals want to pair up with him. And as the basketball-watching world prepared for the inevitable fallout from James' meeting on Wednesday with Pat Riley, the president of the Miami Heat, the lessons from the week were already clear: James was in charge.

So the waiting continued. For teams, which have limited money to spread around and would prefer that James choose them. For many of James' fellow free agents, who cannot reach deals until the biggest domino falls. For members of the news media, who are not an especially patient lot. And for fans, who scoured social media for the most microscopic of clues.

(Were those really moving vans outside James' home in Miami? And what was he doing posting a photo on Instagram of his old pals from Akron, Ohio?)

Through it all, though, James remained as impassive as ever. On Wednesday, he made an appearance here at his annual basketball camp for elite high school players — he even shot a few hoops himself — before departing for his meeting with Riley, during which Riley was expected to reiterate the Heat's plans.

While all this was playing out, the Cleveland Cavaliers were making moves in hopes of persuading James to return. They were able to shed about $10 million in player payroll by engineering a three-team trade that involved the Brooklyn Nets and the Boston Celtics. The Cavaliers gave up a lot for nothing but salary-cap space, enough to produce a contract that would pay James about $20.7 million next season — the most he can earn. It was one of the few deals that could get done, if only because it peripherally involved James.


It was a huge gamble by Cleveland and one that came at a cost. The Cavaliers agreed to send Sergey Karasev, a promising forward, to the Nets, and to give a future first-round pick to the Celtics. But this was the price of business with the league's top player on the open market. The notion that James might not return to Cleveland? It was not something that fans wanted to consider.

"There's no way he's going to rip our hearts out twice like this," said Jason Herron, a season-ticket holder and the general manager of an Akron-area car dealership.

Herron, 40, recalled how James left the Cavaliers four years ago, with a televised special that reduced Cleveland to abject despair. Herron played a part by using a James jersey to start a bonfire outside a Cleveland bar. The footage spread quickly online, a symbol of the city's fraught relationship with professional sports — and its instant animosity toward James.

Things change, of course. Herron said he spent Sunday on his computer monitoring the flight path of a plane belonging to the Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.

"It was 85 degrees, the sun only comes out five times a year in Cleveland, and I'm inside watching Gilbert's plane go to Miami," he said. "It would be total redemption if LeBron came back."

And total disappointment if he does not. By merely taking his time with his decision, and by having his agent, Rich Paul, meet with the Cavaliers last week, James had done enough to inspire hope for his return. Not that it was his fault, or that he deserved blame. James does not owe anyone anything at this stage of his career, not when he has so much to offer.

It was also worth noting that there were no guarantees in any of this for Riley, a man whose championship credentials are nearly unrivaled. Phil Jackson, the one person who might rival that, was in his own bit of a holding pattern Wednesday as he awaited word from Carmelo Anthony about whether he would re-sign with the New York Knicks.

Here were two instances in which the players held all the power, a product of free agency and all the agita it can produce.


The trickle-down effect was enormous. Consider Chris Bosh, who was believed to be weighing a lucrative contract offer from the Houston Rockets but was waiting to see what James would do. Consider, for that matter, the Rockets, who were most likely drafting several backup plans in case Bosh opted to re-sign with Miami.

James' decision was even affecting the Memphis Grizzlies, who had offered Mike Miller a new contract. But Miller was waiting on James, a former teammate and perhaps a future one. By the end of the day, the LeBron flowchart looked like a maze.

The situation would probably have looked a whole lot different had the Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs in the finals. To state the obvious, it would have been much more difficult for James to explore leaving Miami after winning three straight championships. But the Spurs exposed the Heat's flaws, and James was left to weigh his options.

Amid all the uncertainty, the Spurs put themselves back in the conversation Wednesday — if only for a moment. The team released a 28-word statement announcing that coach Gregg Popovich had agreed to a multiyear contract extension.

Some things never change.

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